An intimate picture
In 1958 a recent migrant to Australia went for a barbecue with her Australian companions to a northern Sydney beach and there caught sight of her first bikini. For the 19-year-old American this was a genuine shock. Even in her home city of Los Angeles, with its relatively free atmosphere by US standards, women were never seen so scantily attired. And this was but one striking instance of the difference she found between her native country and the land she had so precipitously arrived in. Australians seemed incredibly relaxed about sex and at the same time to her puritanised, Yankee sensibility strangely childish. Why, for instance, did they call the sex act a ''naughty''? Was it all of a piece with the way they infantilised everything, like ''vegies'' and ''taties'' and ''barbies''? Or did it signify something else?
You've probably guessed already who this poor puzzled migrant was. And though 54 years later I've become appreciably more Australian than American, some elements of my initial puzzlement remained. Until, that is, I was given this truly fascinating book to review. How different The Sex Lives of Australians: A History is from so many other scholarly books on the subject. Back in the '50s, when pornography was rigidly (if not entirely) suppressed, tomes on sexuality were often the only source of information available, but curiosity was hideously thwarted by the turgid, euphemistic, ''scientific'' prose. And the offerings in schools bordered on the ridiculous. We tried hard to imagine our earnest, po-faced educators engaged in the acts they spoke about, and the challenge defeated us.
I realise as I'm writing that my observations so far teeter on the trivial and risk not doing justice to ANU historian Frank Bongiorno's achievement. My only defence is that he would probably agree that the subject he's chosen is at one and the same time deeply personal yet intricately determined by the social, political and economic factors that constitute a nation's history.
Historian that he is, Bongiorno begins at the beginning, starting with white settlement and tracing his themes throughout the decades. His theme overall is that Australian sexuality has been as subject over time to cyclical variation as other aspects of our national life. Moreover, the process has been uneven, affecting certain classes of people at different times in differing ways.
Drawing diligently on the sources, he dismantles some myths, supports others, and notes some real surprises. In the very first chapter he tackles the myth surrounding the Lady Juliana's arrival at Sydney Cove:
''Popular histories by Robert Hughes and Thomas Keneally have suggested, without evidence, that the initial landing of the female convicts in Sydney on 6 February 1788 was marked by their rape or attempted rape. These happenings are presented as part of an 'orgy' or 'great Sydney bacchanal'. The reality was certainly more prosaic … despite the resilient stereotype of the convict woman as a 'whore', men valued such women for their skills, companionship and sexuality.''
But rapes there assuredly were. (The very term ''pack-rape'', I learned, happens to be Australian in origin.) And white women weren't the only victims. Men and especially Aboriginal women were also raped - the latter almost as a matter of course when tragically confused cross-cultural misunderstandings held sway.
Yet Bongiorno contends that the very timing of white settlement meant that as far as sex was concerned the colony was ''born modern''. Ideas about fundamental differences between the sexes were taking hold, and ''as divisions between the bodies, minds and souls of the sexes became more sharply defined in western thought, so too did the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable sexual behaviour''.
It's impossible in this space to mention all the twists and turns and outright about-faces Bongiorno examines, or to name all the interesting characters who brought these changes about, so I'll restrict myself to two definitive changes.
Having lived through the '60s sexual revolution, I can attest that it was exciting and real. To see the repeal of Australia's ludicrous censorship laws, or abortion laws changed, was to breathe in hearty draughts of fresh air, and the pill really did change our lives. If the revolution had its horrifyingly sexist elements, that only led to the resurgence of feminism, a movement which has done so much to improve a woman's lot, opening up possibilities scarcely imaginable before.
Similarly, the fact that we have today openly gay people sitting in our parliaments and on our judiciary benches has been a remarkable advance, particularly when it's remembered that homosexual acts were criminal offences well into the 1980s. That gay marriage, too, is accepted by the majority of Australian citizens, if not their politicians, shows just how far we've come. I thank Bongiorno as well for giving the recently deceased John Ware his due for the critical part he played in these developments, although Ware himself, like many activists from the '70s, did find the push for marriage somewhat problematic.
All is not entirely well in our new-found sexual paradise nor was its coming to pass without complication. But few can doubt the improvements. I wish I could tell you more, but for that you'll have to read the book. You won't be sorry, I promise. This is highly readable, serious history about our most intimate yet most culturally sensitive selves.
Sara Dowse is a novelist and reviewer living in Sydney. In 1974 she became the first head of the Office of Women's Affairs, later the Office of the Status of Women.
The Sex Lives of Australians: A History. By Frank Bongiorno. Black Inc. 352pp. $32.95.